WaKEENEY — You’ll have a hard time convincing some people in Trego County there was no tornado here Thursday afternoon.
A fast-moving system prompted severe thunderstorm warnings early Thursday afternoon for Gove and Trego counties, and shortly after that, a tornado warning for Trego. As the storm progressed, large hail began to fall with strong winds and heavy rain, sending residents and travelers alike scurrying for shelter.
And many of them reported hearing the same thing: a sound like a train rushing at them.
But the National Weather Service in Dodge City reported no confirmed tornadoes with the storm, according to meteorologist Wesley Hovorka.
“What I believe and what they believe are two different things,” said Trego County Emergency Management Director Kathleen Fabrizius.
She said the weather service told her Friday it was likely winds of 90 mph or more.
She noted there’s a line of damage through the county from the Cargill elevator east of WaKeeney, to the east side of town and toward Cedar Bluff Reservoir.
“I would tell you there’s some mighty big trees that got twisted,” Fabrizius said.
“Crops are just leveled. Milo fields that were 3 feet tall are now barren ground. Pasture’s the same way. Nothing but dirt,” she said.
What is certain is the hail, ranging from golf ball to softball size that pummeled WaKeeney and the surrounding countryside. The storm moved so quickly, many had little time to prepare.
Riding it out
Kathy Wulf had no idea what was coming. Engrossed in her work laying out the next edition of the WaKeeney Western World at its downtown office, she heard the tornado sirens but didn’t pay much attention.
“All of a sudden it sounded like, you know you hear that tornado sound that sounds like a train,” she said Friday afternoon.
And then the sky fell.
The Western Kansas World building features a glass dome and skylights in a central part of the building. As golf ball-sized hail began falling, the glass crashed into the office, knocking holes in surrounding ceiling tiles and smashing translucent panels.
A small bathroom was across the room, but Wulf knew the roof there wasn’t stable enough to provide shelter.
“I did not know where to go exactly,” she said.
The building has a basement, where the morgue — a newspaper term for files of old news clippings and past issues — is kept.
“If you’ve ever been to the morgue, you don’t want to die there,” Wulf said.
She took shelter in a doorway farther back in the building near some cement walls.
“Then I heard behind me some of the ceiling was falling in,” she said.
But, being a Kansan, she knew one thing: Whatever it was would end quickly.
“What can you do but ride it out? If I can last 15 minutes, I’m good,” she said.
“I have to say it was scary in here. The sound of all that glass, it was frightening,” she said.
Employees at Cleland Pharmacy on the west side of WaKeeney had a fright with glass, too.
Pharmacist Joslyn Stum said she and other staff members were standing at the large, west-facing storefront windows watching the beginning of the hail storm, and within a few seconds, saw it become dangerous. They fled for shelter.
“Then our windows just imploded,” she said.
She, too, said she heard a freight-train type of sound as the staff took shelter.
When it was safe to come out, they found glass blown almost halfway through the store. A skylight in the roof had been shattered and the upstairs flooded from the rain, with water leaking through to the first floor.
No one was injured, and all of the medicine and medical supplies were spared any damage, however. “We are open” was spray painted on the plywood sheets covering the broken-out windows Friday.
‘They couldn’t get out’
After the storm passed Thursday and residents and travelers began to assess the damage to their homes, business and vehicles, the staff at the Western Kansas World gathered.
Reporter Sandra Stenzel had ridden out the storm in her pickup at the grocery store. Shooed out of the store as the storm approached, she didn’t even get to pay for her cat food.
Dodging the hail stones from the store to the 10 or 15 feet to her truck was like dodging gunfire, she said. She could barely close the door because of the wind.
When she arrived at the office and saw the glass, ceiling tiles, hail and water on the floor, she called her boss, Jerry Millard.
The long-time newspaper publisher had been at his farm outside town when the storm struck. His daughter is building a home on the property and was temporarily living in a travel trailer with her four young children. They took shelter in the trailer’s bathroom.
The winds, Millard said, picked up the trailer, rolled it and wrapped it around a pole.
“They couldn’t get out because of the telephone pole,” he said.
Workers at the property cut the top of the trailer open.
“She and four children walked out with just some minor scratches. It’s amazing, it really was,” he said, his voice breaking.
Later, as he and the newspaper staff took in the damage at the office, uncertainty set in.
“(Thursday) night was pretty grim. We just didn’t know exactly how bad it was or whether her computer would turn on.” Stenzel said of Wulf’s iMac. “There was just a lot we didn’t know.”
But Friday morning, the computer did work. Even if hadn’t, the small staff would have found a way to get out the next edition, they said. Stenzel noted the Western Kansas World has not missed an edition in 139 years.
“We always put out a paper. You can’t ever not put out a paper,” Millard said.
“If we weren’t, I need to relax,” Wulf said, getting a laugh from everyone.
Friday afternoon, she was working on this week’s edition while Lori Wills swept up more glass and took inventory of what had been damaged. Millard was on the roof, patching holes to make do until a roofer can get to the building. He suspects the dome will have to go and the skylight covered.
“It’s a shame about the roof. But it’s just some stuff,” he said.
“We’re all walking. We’re all all right.”